2012 August 12, Sunday
Gulf of Mexico, Sackett Bank area of Mississippi Canyon

Despite persistent lines of thunderstorms across southern Louisiana, there were large patches of blue sky and calm seas out on the Gulf today, so we jumped at the chance to help scientists find the elusive huge plankton feeders we've come to love -- whale sharks. Louisiana's Department of Wildlife & Fisheries has taken a keen interest in whale sharks since the great tagging successes by USM/GCRL and NOAA scientists in recent years, due in no small part to the help of our eyes in the sky. The LDWF boat was ready and waiting for us out in the Mississippi Canyon today, where we planned to search an area where other plankton feeders and lots of tuna had been spotted this past week.

We planned to rendezvous with the boat at the Who Dat platform, some 130 miles southeast of New Orleans. We would search selectively in about a 400-sq-mi area to the north and west, as far as platforms Lena and Cognac about 35 miles to the north, Moxie about 25 miles to the northwest, and about 10 miles west toward Medusa.  Since blue water seemed to be farther south today, we also searched an additional 30 miles or so southward to the Mars and Ursa platforms. (These oil platforms serve as useful guideposts, and their names are easier to say and remember than are their GPS coordinates -- which are given in our Flight Log appended below.)

We saw a fair amount of activity -- birds and bait balls, tuna and other large fish jumping, dolphins playing, an occasional ray and sea turtle and mola mola (sunfish) -- but alas, no whale sharks. However, no day flying over the Gulf is ever boring.  Today we were treated to watching a small group of dolphins race toward the path of a large vessel, only to position themselves directly in front of it and enjoy quite a bow ride!  We also saw a small pod of dolphins including mothers and calves. On our way out to sea, we passed by a huge thunderstorm cell to the west, and we watched an impressive waterspout form. That is one of those things you love to watch but would never ever ever want to fly under. We saw not one but three large mola mola (sunfish), floating in the blue-green water between the Lena and Cognac platforms (exact positions for all sightings are given in the Flight Log below and in our GPS tracks, which you can download here). And of course there was the phenomena that we chased tirelessly but in vain -- bait balls, many of them with large tuna jumping about and plenty of birds feasting.  

And as usual on Gulf of Mexico flyovers, even on a day like today when we are not looking for and do not want to find manmade oil pollution, we saw plenty of evidence of it. The first circle of rainbow sheen crossed our path at the north end of Plaquemines Parish, just south of Black Bay (GPS #0358 in our Flight Log below). Then we passed the Taylor Energy pollution horror a few miles to our east. It remains the same horrible sight, still a large expanse of sheen as far as our eyes could see. We didn't even bother to approach and film it; today was for whale sharks, not for oil. We saw some strange-looking foamy sheen mixed with sargassum in several places, one long band of it in particular near the Moxie platform.  Also, just northwest of the Who Dat platform (gps coordinates N28° 9.5', W089° 8.4'), there was a large ship called "DAMON CHOUEST" towing several lines, seismic monitoring perhaps? Maybe one of you readers can tell us.

Enjoy the photos and videos -- you'll see rigs, ships, birds and bait balls, dolphins bow-riding, and mola mola floating.  The sea turtles did not cooperate with our cameras today, and the jumping tuna we didn't get in focus.  You'll get a good idea from these photos of the subtle sights our eyes are trained to look for as we fly along between 60 and 120 kts at 500-800' above the water. Precise positions of all sightings are in the Flight Log below.

By the way, the reason the map of our flight tracks resembles more of a drunken meandering than it does a formal grid pattern is that at this time of year, we search for whale sharks near bait balls, where they are often coming up from below vertically, scooping up lots of small fish in their enormous open mouths. While we make sure we've covered the search area, on days like this, except for flying directly to reconnaissance points with a boat or to check on a reported sighting from a fisherman or platform, we tend to fly from bait ball to bait ball. Viewed from 800' in the air, bait balls first look like dark spots on the water, different from the dark cloud shadows on water. As we approach them, if the fish are jumping we see them glistening and we see a bit of white water from their jumping. We'll often also see birds, sometimes even before we see any fish.

A final comment on the numbers of large marine animals we've seen this year: Last month we found a group of ten whale sharks feeding at the surface, west of this area in Ewing Bank. That success made us hopeful of again finding large aggregations of whale sharks in the area -- like the more than hundred seen there in June of 2010. But on two subsequent flights to that area, we saw no more.  Recently, with reports of lots of tuna jumping in the area of today's search and at least one sighting of a whale shark there, we hoped that we would see a repeat of what had happened last year and even more, in 2010 -- where the whale sharks were found feeding vertically in these active bait balls.  But it was not to be. This year, the numbers of visible large marine animals has been low in these waters off of Louisiana, compared to what we found in 2010 and last year.  This year we have found no large aggregations of whale sharks, no large pods of dolphins, not very many sea turtles, a few large schools of rays, and only a few groups of whales (mostly sperm and short-finned pilot). We hope the reason is that they have found preferable waters elsewhere, because each time we've searched, there is no question that if they were there and anywhere near the surface, we would have seen them.  We are well-practiced at flying "low and slow" and we are tenacious spotters; the animals simply have not been there to see.

Our Flight log is given below, followed by more photos and some videos from today's flight.

******   On Wings Of Care Flight Log for 20120812 Sunday  ******
SEARCH for WHALE SHARKS in the GULF of MEXICO
KNEW to Lena, Whodat, Moxie, Cognac, and south to Mars-Ursa

All waypoint numbers below refer to the GPS tracks shown in today's article at OnWingsOfCare.org.  Our GPS track files can be downloaded here
Times are given in CDT.  
Lat/lons are given in degrees and decimal minutes.
Aircraft:  N4784E  Bonny Schumaker with Brayton Matthews, Terese P. Collins, and Don Abrams as additional spotters.
Seas and weather:  Seas 1  ft, partly cloudy, 5-10 kt winds from the south-southwest.
Visibility:  Air medium-good, sea good.
Flight time:  6.2 hours
Flight route: KNEW - Lena-Whodat-Moxie and half way west to Medusa, then south to Mars-Ursa, north to Cognac - back to KNEW

The pre-set waypoints for this flight were the Lena, Whodat, Moxie, and Medusa platforms, to which we added Mars and Ursa to thesouth and Cognac to the north, based on recent shark sightings in this area east of Sackett Bank in the Mississippi Canyon.  Our LDWF crew were waiting in their boat at Whodat; we arrived there around 12 noon.

The maps of our planned and actual routes showing these targets together with waypoints identified during our flight and some key points from previous flights are in today's article.

Short summary:  Despite glassy waters and good seeing, all fish ball and bird activity was farther north from the glassy blue water, in blue-green water and mostly between Whodat, Moxie, Lena, and later in the day northward to Cognac.  Despite many bait balls and birds fishing, and some large tuna jumping, we saw not sharks of any kind, only one ray and one leatherback turtle, several small groups of dolphins.

Intended ADIZ crossing point enroute from KNEW was approximately:
ADIZ: N28 40'. W089 10', approximately 95 nm from KNEW on a ma gnetic bearing of 150°.

 

Rigs of interest are at the following approximate locations:
Lena (MC280, ExxonMobil):  N28 39.78' W089 9.47'
Whodat (MC503/504/547): N28 25.01' W089 01.03'
Moxie (MC365A):  N28 36.06' W089 18.68'
Cognac (MC194, Shell): N28 47' W089 03'
Innovator (MC711):  N28 13.230 W89 36.900
Medusa (MC582, Murphy):  N28 23.554  W089 27.21
Mars (MC807A):   N28 10.171  W089 13.373
Ursa (MC809A):   N28 9.242  W089 6.213
--------------------

0358. 1130 CDT N29 30.185 W89 35.759
Circle of rainbow sheen, about 10m in diameter.

Taylor Energy (viewed from about 4 nm to its west):  just as bad as ever!

0359. 1156 CDT.  N28 47.388 W89 01.061
Water spout to our west (see photos)

0360. 1206 CDT. N28 30.048 W89 06.807
Several single dolphin not far from a fish ball.  Tuna or other large fish jumping in fish ball.

Noble Amos Runner (located not far north of Who Dat)

0361. 1249 CDT. N28 29.398 W89 17.348
~10 dolphin (~7 nm south of Moxie).

MOXIE. Lots of bait balls, especially immediately to its northwest and in a line to its southeast.

0362. 1303 CDT. N28 36.275 W89 17.507
Many dolphins.

0363. 1307 CDT. N28 34.326 W89 14.943
Leatherback turtle.

0364. 1309 CDT. N28 33.829 W89 14.282
Lots of birds, fish balls, and four tuna fishing boats

0365. 1311 CDT. N28 32.925 W89 13.381
Three dolphins (?)bow-riding on large ship "Odyssey Titan"

0366. 1318 CDT. N28 31.421 W89 10.924
Fish balls.

0367. 1318 CDT. N28 30.464 W89 10.492
Approx 20 dolphins.

0368. 1321 CDT. N28 29.906 W89 10.084
Three dolphins (small whales?)

0369. 1331 CDT. N28 31.145 W89 14.509
Fish balls and birds.

MOXIE (platform says "Corral").  Weird sargassum line here at northwest corner.

0370. 1406 CDT. N28 29.382 W89 16.409
Large ray!

0371. 1406 CDT. N28 29.601 W89 15.976
Dolphins.

0372. 1414 CDT. N28 29.417 W89 13.552
Fish ball, large and active.

0373. 1421 CDT. N28 26.771 W89 14.268
Large fish jumping, many birds,  Sargassum patches.

0374. 1423 CDT. N28 24.910 W89 13.459
Fish ball.

0375. 1502 CDT. N28 39.441 W89 08.158
Large bait ball, many birds, a few large fish jumping.

0376. 1510 CDT. N28 36.233 W89 14.289
Birds, two large fish jumping.

COGNAC

0377. 1523 CDT. N28 40.223 W89 04.645
5-7 bottlenose dolphins.

0378. 1530 CDT. N28 44.123 W89 03.092
Fish balls and birds, many.

0379. 1540 CDT. N28 46.620 W89 03.665
Two large mola mola (sunfish)!

0380. 1558 CDT. N28 33.501 W89 12.273
Fish balls

0381. 1600 CDT. N28 33.342 W89 12.289
Fish ball

COGNAC: Another mola mola. Just floating below the surface again.

 

Here is a video of that waterspout:
 

 

And one of an active baitball: